With 169 cases for every 100,000 people, the Greater Manchester town has the highest rate in England and has featured among the worst-hit areas in Europe. Health officials said infections had been doubling every four days.
Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East, said many people in the area believed the virus was a fake, government-constructed concept and as a result were refusing to adhere to social distancing guidelines. “There is a lot of confusion about the virus in the area and there are a lot of people now who do not believe it is true,” she said.
Qureshi added: “They genuinely believe it’s some kind of conspiracy. A lot of them don’t understand the rules either and so there are many who just aren’t following them – they think it is a way of controlling them somehow. It is very dangerous.”
One resident, Hayley Brandwood, whose young son was tested for the virus earlier this week, said many people were deliberately breaking the rules, bolstered by #thinkingforyourself.
The hashtag has taken off in local forums in Bolton, used by people who are not following the rules and criticising others for doing so.
Brandwood, 33, believes the surge in cases is related to the trend. “I would say that the majority of people around here are not wearing masks when they go into shops and if you do wear one you are considered a sheep,” she said.
“I’ve seen people laughing and shaking their heads at others who are wearing masks. It’s so frustrating. Lots of people in supermarkets, everywhere really, just not wearing them. They don’t quite understand how dangerous it is,” she added.
Brandwood said a number of high-profile people in the area had been using social media to share conspiracy theories about the virus. “It is all over Facebook, in local forums, with people saying coronavirus is not true and it is a way for the government to take control of us all. It’s so strange but it’s really began to take hold,” she said.
Earlier this week it was reported that the number of people being admitted to hospital in the town with confirmed or suspected coronavirus was rising. Hospital chiefs also said they were seeing an increased number of patients under-65 being admitted, with some in their in 40s and 50s, a significantly younger age group than at the peak of the pandemic in April and May.
Dr Francis Andrews, medical director at Bolton NHS foundation trust, said: “We are seeing more people being admitted with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 as a result of the very high rate of infections in Bolton. This is not a shift we want to see. The situation at the hospital is under control and we were well prepared for this.
“However, the rate continuing to rise is of concern, and we urge the people of Bolton to consider others when making decisions that could jeopardise their safety.”